By James V. Ruocco
"Money, Money, Money"
"Thank You For the Music"
"The Name of the Game"
"I Have a Dream"
"Take a Chance On Me"
Those songs and others are part of the "Mamma Mia!" musical which made its West End debut in London" back in 1999 and eventually made the leap to Broadway two years later. To date, it has been performed all over the world and in 2021, to be exact, shows absolutely no sign of slowing down or getting older.
Then and now, "Mamma Mia!" is one of those contagious, family-friendly shows that demonstrate the enduring power of romantic musicals and one that comes gift wrapped with bright colors, catchy musical numbers, fluid staging, cute characters, lively choreography, pungent one liners and a happy ending that actors and audiences simply cannot get enough of.
You know the story.
You know the songs.
You know the characters.
You know the outcome.
Catching "Mamma Mia!" on stage is like coming home to a great big family celebration where the champagne flows, the music sparkles, the food is satisfying and the dancing is completely magical. Toss in some very tasty wedding cake and you'll have the time of your life.
Nowhere is this more evident than in the Arts of Angeloria's cheery, flavorful presentation of the ever-popular ABBA musical starring Lori Holm as Donna Sheridan and Theresa Cusson as her daughter Sophie.
There are rewards aplenty.
This "Mamma Mia!" is fizzy and clever.
It is terrific fun.
It is full of life.
It is sweet and syrupy.
It is energetic and full-out.
It is captivating and enchanting.
It is heartwarming and charming.
It is fast and fluid.
It is a welcome diversion.
And boy, do we need it now.
As musical theatre, it also serves up ABBA classics - each and every one a hit.
It displays invites of hugs, kisses, singalongs, swaying arms and clapping hands.
It is a terrific diversion for audiences of any age and gender.
Its party atmosphere rings loud and clear.
Longevity has also been its reward.
The sweet-tinged story of "Mamma Mia! " as written by playwright Catherine Johnson, is built on the recurring theme of love, passion, survival, surprise and romantic unexpectedness. As the musical opens (the action is set on the island of Kalokari in Greece), 21-year-old Sophie Sheridan finds her mother Donna's diary from 1979 and decides to contact the three guys mentioned - Sam, Harry and Bill - one of whom could very well be her biological father - and invites them to her upcoming wedding to Sky, her beachcomber boyfriend.
Donna's two best friends and former members of her once popular girl group "Donna and the Dynamos" - Tanya and Rosie - are also en route to the island nuptials, but for plot purposes, no one (at first, anyway) has any idea of what Sophie has done, not even her mother. How and what happens next gives "Mamma Mia!" enough romantic fuel to keep things happily in focus until the big finish at the end of Act II.
Staging "Mamma Mia!" is Kim Dougherty who makes her first-time directorial debut at the cozy and intimate Arts of Angeloria venue. Working from Johnson's play script, she brings the right voice and reason to the proceedings, matched by an appropriate wit and energy that kicks the two-act musical into orbit without ever going overboard to the point where "Mamma Mia!" become knee-deep in kitsch, bubble-gum goo and corny ornamentation. She also makes great use of the theater's intimate environs by using the center and side aisles for entrances, exits and production numbers without any form of overkill. Simplicity is key to this production's success and Dougherty tackles this staging technique most engagingly.
Here, the heart, soul and romance of the main story and its many subplots are deftly shaped and realized by the director in completely natural ways that allow the musical to breathe, evolve and resonate with both the onstage actors and the entire audience. Nothing is taken for granted. Nothing is over-the-top and ridiculous, Nothing is thrown in for the sake of additional laughter or dramatic effect.
What sets this particular production apart from other local productions of "Mamma Mia!" is that Dougherty looks at it from a completely different perspective. As the story evolves, musically or through page-by-page dialogue, she uses an immersive approach to her telling reflective in her three-dimensional staging, her blocking, her interactions, the musical numbers and the swiftness of the play's fast and fluid set changes. It's a feat she accomplishes swimmingly, all of which is nicely timed to the beat of the music, the songs themselves and happily romantic storyline.
Based on the songs of ABBA, composed by Benny Andersson and Bjorn Ulvaeus (Stig Andersson is also credited in the footnotes for certain songs used in the two-act musical), "Mamma Mia!" includes 26 high-energy musical numbers culled from the pop-tinged ABBA songbook. They are "Prologue/I Have a Dream," "Honey, Honey," "Money, Money, Money," "Thank You For the Music," "Mamma Mia!" "Chiquitita," "Dancing Queen," "Lay All Your Love On Me," "Super Trouper," "Gimme, Gimme, Gimme (A Man After Midnight)," "Voulez Vous," "Under Attack," "One of Us," "S.O.S.," "Does Your Mother Know?" "Knowing Me, Knowing You," "Our Last Summer," "Slipping Through My Fingers," "The Winner Takes It All," "Take a Chance On Me," "I Do, I Do, I Do," "I Have a Dream," "Mamma Mia! (Encore)," "Dancing Queen (Encore)" and "Waterloo."
The songs themselves, nicely incorporated into Catherine Johnson's romantic story, transcend time and place in the most agreeable of ways. They are serviceable to the plot, its power-pop progression and the various characters and chorus members who sing them and bring them to life night after night. Every single one of them are fun, deliciously nostalgic and very, very hummable.
With Alan Dougherty as musical director for this particular incarnation of the oft-performed musical, "Mamma Mia!" achieves a giddy charm and musical greatness that unfolds with plenty of snap, power, whimsy, heartbreak and disco ball fantasia. Completely akin to the song style, beat and rhythm that is ABBA - pop rock, light ballads, folksy glam, euro disco, funk-inspired hooks, novelty kitsch - Dougherty dutifully respects and understands the unstoppable, invincibly commercial romantic bliss, mindset and glitz that is ABBA, the group's lathered expressionism and the surface beauty and intimacy of the actual songs themselves. That, in a musical of this nature, goes a very long way.
Working alongside a handpicked team of talented musicians (Ed Rosenblatt, Jordan Brint, Ray Boyce, Nick Stanford, Sean Haight, Mark Sokolson), Dougherty brings a certain freshness, remarkable urgency and deep tenderness to the "Mamma Mia!" score, matched by a pulsating flair and charismatic energy. Every member of the orchestral team is totally in sync with the instrumental detail of ABBA's achievements - "Mamma Mia!" "Dancing Queen," "Voulez Vous," "Super Trouper" "Gimme, Gimme, Gimme (A Man After Midnight)"- throughout the production, marvelously capturing and portraying the feeling, the confidence, the color, the innocence and the sparkle evident in the show's bouncy, generous and vibrant musical score.
Choreography, when done right, is also key to the "Mamma Mia!" experience at Angeloria's. For this production, the theater has enlisted the talents of Qusanna Perez, a choreographer who works within the confines of the venue's immersive space and presents simple dance moves, pairings and ensemble connections that magnify the core love story, drama and humor at hand. In turn, nothing is repetitive or over baked.
The dance maneuvers and rhythmic patterns she develops are well-rehearsed, important, celebratory, sexy and trademark athletic. This is uninhibited choreography full of wit, brains, craft, propulsion and island splendor. It thrusts you into its lightweight world and subject matter with increasing power and beauty. It finds the right mindset of the moment and runs with it. It also strikes the right balance between dancer and audience and allows everyone involved to be completely swept up in the on-stage and in-the-aisle dance mania of it all.
"Mamma Mia!" stars Lori Holm as Donna Sheridan, Theresa Cusson as Sophie Sheridan, Amelia Nemeth as Tanya, Sara Fabrizio as Rosie, Joe Berthiaume as Sky, Kevin Pelkey as Harry Bright, Jerry Wooding as Bill Austin, John Zimmerman as Sam Carmichael, Nicole Zolad as Ali, Samantha Gamez as Lisa, Joey Abate as Pepper, Zach Fontanez as Eddie and Peter Weidt as Father Alexandrios.
As Donna Sheridan, the mother of Sophie and the former lead singer of the girl group "Donna and the Dynamos," Lori Holm offers a completely different interpretation of the character which grounds the part in a brave and truthful reality that was obviously missing from actresses who have played the role in other local productions over the last three years. Holm, last seen as Miss Prism in Castle Craig's exhilarating and recently streamed production of Oscar Wilde's "The Importance of Being Earnest," offers yet another memorable performance that showcases her dramatic, comedic, romantic and vocal skills.
Her Donna is earthy, stubborn, vulnerable, misunderstood and a survivalist. It's an important character portrait full of passion, optimism, spunk, truthfulness, strongness and determination. Vocally, she has great fun (her voice is full of dramatic yearn, open-heartedness and feel) with the many ABBA songs she is asked to sing and perform. In particular, "Money, Money Money," "Dancing Queen," "Super Trouper," "S.O.S." and the showstopping title song "Mamma Mia!" sung with the entire company.
In the role of Donna's daughter Sophie, Theresa Cusson is well cast opposite Holm and Joe Berthiaume who plays her boyfriend and soon-to-be-wedded husband Sky. No matter what song she sings - "I Have a Dream," "The Name of the Game," "Honey, Honey," to name a few - she hits all the right notes magnificently with an impassioned vitality, charm and emotion that reflects the mindset of the ABBA material and its creators. There's also a natural playfulness to her pairing with Berthiaume, both as a couple and during their important, big musical number "Lay All Your Love on Me," backed by the show's male ensemble.
Sara Fabrizio brings the right comic energy and zing to the part of Rosie, which she infuses with a spark and unique sense of propriety that adds fuel to her zany, unforgettable comedic performance. As the alluring, vain and sexually promiscuous Tanya, Amelia Nemeth makes all the right moves, both as an actress and a singer. Her big comic number "Does Your Mother Know" is great fun and one of the major highlights of Act II. Playing Sophie's best friends Ali and Lisa, Nicole Zolad and Samantha Gamez, display the comfort, joy and fun for their best friend characters while Joey Abate and Zak Fontanez ham it up convincingly as Pepper and Eddie, the two guys who work at Donna's taverna.
As Bill Austin, Jerry Wooding brings plenty of zest. personality and chutzpah to the part, making him standout whenever he's on stage. Near the end of Act II, his hilarious comic duet with Fabrizio - "Take a Chance on Me" - charts the couple's wildly crazed seduction through decidedly, well-timed staging and outrageous frivolity. John Zimmerman's Sam Carmichael is both responsible and caring, particularly in his scenes with both Holm and Cusson. The best male performance of the trio, however, comes from local theater veteran Kevin Pelkey, cast in the pivotal role of cheeky Englishman Harry Bright. Here, the actor brings a sit-com ingenuity and spirit to the part, offset by a fresh, satirical approach that's plucky, funny and imaginative. "Our Last Summer," his Act II duet with Holm, is lots of fun and performed with genuine musicality as they reminisce about their romantic fling of long ago.
A musical of this caliber is not complete without a talented ensemble and this production of "Mamma Mia!" contains a chorus of men and women whose musical showmanship is so incredibly perfect, they deserve accolades of the highest honor. They are: Sandy Abate, Kat Powers, Charles Clark, Hannah Smyth, Elyse Lachapelle, Liz Parsons, Steffron Sampson, Cristin Daly, Kuhlken Gorman, Marty Garcia and Peter Weidt. Vocally, their individual teamwork is stellar, harmonious and pitch-perfect as is their ability to cut loose with the many different dances they are asked to perform throughout the two-act musical.
The perfect summer refreshment, complemented by an inviting outdoor environment of Victorian garden ambiance (before and after the show or during intermission), "Mamma Mia!" is a joyful, tuneful uplifting entertainment that pulls out all the ABBA classics with obvious affection, sparkle, dash and heartbreak that is seriously contagious and great fun. It's typical Broadway/West End musical fare that puts ABBA back on the brain again, performed with dazzling exhilaration by a very talented, attractive cast under Kim Dougherty's playful, up-tempo direction. The dancing, smartly choreographed by Qusanna Perez is lively and breezy. Catherine Johnston's original story is happily sunny and cheery like a Hallmark or Lifetime Movie romance. And the musical direction by Alan Dougherty makes you want to jump up from your seat and partake in the show's musical merriment.
The two-act musical is also the perfect show to put a smile on your face, get you all hot and bothered for a summer romance and send you out into the night right through the theater doors on a real sugar high like no other.
(Photos of "Mamma Mia!" by Chris Zajac and Kim Turret)